Long-term care workers anxious, frustrated as Trellis deal plays out

Vancouver Coastal Health

Workers at the two long-term care facilities slated for closure by Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) say they’re in a state of limbo that’s causing anxiety and stress as they try to deliver quality care amid uncertainty about their own futures.

If the VCH plan goes forward on schedule, Shorncliffe and Totem Lodge will close in August 2018 and be replaced by the new Silverstone Care Centre in Sechelt. As part of its agreement with VCH, Trellis Seniors Services guarantees an interview to Shorncliffe and Totem workers who apply for jobs at Silverstone. There’s no guarantee they’ll get hired. And no guarantee that, if they’re hired, they’ll get the same wages and benefits they enjoy now.

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Several of those workers put their thoughts in writing and brought them to Coast Reporter, saying they felt it was a story the community should hear. They were offered anonymity, and details that might identify them or the jobs they do at Shorncliffe and Totem have been edited from their comments.

Coast Reporter has also obtained copies of a question-and-answer sheet distributed by Trellis following meetings with the staff at both facilities last November.

“Our future is uncertain knowing we will have to work more than one full-time job to make ends meet, [we] are not sleeping, are anxious, downright scared,” wrote one of the employees. “Employees feel betrayed and the morale amongst staff is at an all-time low,” wrote another.

Anxiety was a common theme, and the workers told Coast Reporter it has led to an increase in stress leave. “We were blindsided by the announcement – it was like they dropped a bomb on us! I have not slept properly since. It’s affecting my performance as a reliable [employee]. Most of the time I’m crying, confused, tired and angry – all at the same time. My mind is ready to crack, and I’m afraid I might say or do something I’ll regret. … My co-workers and I are all suffering and will continue to suffer until we are treated like the valued workers that we are.”

Coast Reporter was also told that the pending closure of the facilities has made it hard to fill staff vacancies, although VCH said recruitment is going on as usual, leaving workers to cover more gaps.

“Even now, at such an early stage, the effect the closure is having on those who serve is devastating,” said one of the employees. “Being so short-staffed, employees fear accepting shifts as they may have to stay and do an extra overtime shift as there are no replacements. This has a direct effect on the quality of care for the residents.”

The workers’ letters also speak to their worries about whether a job at Silverstone would allow them to remain on the Sunshine Coast.

The question-and-answer document from Trellis says: “It is estimated that there will be the following FTEs [full-time equivalent employees]: seven RNs, 16 LPNs, 50 RCAs and that there were will be approximately 130 to 140 names on the employee list for the care team (i.e. including part-time and casual workers).”

On the question of pay, Trellis responded that the current “market rates” are $35/hour for an RN, $24-26/hour for LPNs, and $18-19/hour for Care Aides. This is consistent with wages in a collective agreement from an existing Trellis facility that was included in the FOI documents released to Coast Reporter in late December.

Those answers didn’t give much comfort to the worker who wrote, “More than half of our care staff will be without jobs and the ones who are hired will end up with a cut in pay. Has anyone considered how this will affect our community?”

Jennifer Whiteside, the secretary/business manager with the Hospital Employees Union (HEU), said the staff members’ letters echo much of what the union is hearing. HEU represents the largest portion of the workers at the two facilities. RNs are represented by the BC Nurses Union.

“This is an increasingly stressful and frustrating situation for the people who provide the care to frail seniors at Shorncliffe and Totem,” Whiteside said. “The kind of response we’ve seen from the health authority and from Trellis to very legitimate concerns that individuals have about what their future holds for them in terms of their economic security has been, frankly, very shoddy,” she added. “To tell workers, ‘Sorry you may just have to pick up and move out of your community’ is, I think, an unacceptable way to be treating the staff who do this very important work. And, I think it really undercuts the economic security of the entire community.”

That point is also raised in one of the workers’ statements. “The employees, with no guarantee of a living wage, or even employment after the shutdown, are understandably anxious and worried about their future. These employees are the citizens of our communities that pay taxes, shop in our grocery stores, and support our local economy. They have houses and mortgages that they are wondering how they are going to pay. They deserve better than this. At this point in time they are not investing their energy and passion in a system that seems to be failing them.”

Whiteside said she has no trouble believing that the working environment at Shorncliffe and Totem is very difficult right now. “You don’t know whether at the end of this process you’re going to have a job or not. So I can imagine that folks will be looking for other opportunities. I can imagine that it’s very stressful. I can imagine some folks are really considering what their options are and what the future holds.”

VCH is working to address the issues, according to media relations officer Anna Marie D’Angelo.

“We acknowledge that some of our staff are experiencing challenges with the uncertainty related to their future employment,” she said. “We are working with their unions to address this.”

D’Angelo also said a labour adjustment plan being finalized with the unions will deal with staff concerns and “provide employment and financial options.”

VCH is also offering support for staff through its Employee and Family Assistance Plan, which includes opportunities for counselling and financial planning sessions. 

Whiteside said HEU would rather see all the workers remain VCH employees and be able to stay on the Sunshine Coast.

“We have a relationship with Trellis in other parts of the province, [but] we still believe that in this circumstance … for the residents, the workers and the community, it is best to retain those workers as health authority employees.”

The workers who came forward to Coast Reporter said even though it still has more than a year-and-a-half to play out, the effects of the VCH plan are already being felt.

“My [family] and I are living in limbo,” one employee said. “We are unable to make any plans for the future as we do no know what is going to happen. … This decision that VCH has made has already forced people to uproot their families and lives and move away. … I can’t believe that this decision has caused so much pain, heartache, sleeplessness and distress and all the uncertainty for all concerned. All for the sake of 20 extra beds.”

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